Electrification 2.0: Grid planning challenges

Per Everhill 12 jun 2023

Recently I had the opportunity to speak on a GEODE webinar on electricity grid planning challenges in the light of the ongoing wave of electrification in Europe. This blogpost is a summary of my key takeaways on this subject. 

Up until the early 2000´s, the electricity grid was a stabile business. Custumers were connected and tended to have about the same electricity usage pattern during their lifespan. Changes were slow and there was usually enough spare capacity in the grid to manage any unexpected events. 

However, somewhere in the late 2010´s, things started to change. New type of customers emerged that didn´t behave like the old ones. Both industries and household customers started to invest in solar PV, thereby introducing weather dependent small scale distributed electricity production in the local grids. At midday on a sunny day, areas with a high solar PV penetration can now become net producers of electricity rather than consumers. A few years later, EV charging stations became mainstream in Swedish suburban areas raising the traditional peak load at dinnertime when people come home from work. Lately, battery storage has been introduced in many local grids. Still on a small scale and mostly used for balancing services, these have the potential of adding to the changed consumption patterns. We are in the middle of electrification 2.0.

Changed electricity usage patterns in existing grids create capacity challenges, often requiring grid reinforcements. The ongoing changes also creates uncertainty about when to make those investments. To early means a risk of overcapacity, to late a risk for capacity deficits. And how to plan for new connections when the odds are low for additional solar PV & EV charging in the future? On top of all, Sweden still has the heating challenge to consider when it comes to grid planning. About 50 % of Swedish buildings are heated with electricity, thereby being the main factors for grid peaks both national and local. Future heating technology trends are crucial for electricity grid capacity needs. 

How to manage these changes from a DSO grid planning perspective? One important lesson in active coordination with municipality planning. Considering grid capacity only very recently has become scarce in Sweden, access to grid needs to be more considered in city development plans than it used to be. This leads us to the need for increased sector coupling. Do we have to heat our homes with electricity when capacity is scarce? Or could we use district heating instead? Can be run city busses on renewable biogas instead of investing in MW-size chargers? Grid capacity shortages does not always have to be solved with more grids! 

We also need to update our references when it comes to capacity needs and consumption patterns. What size of connection will the househould customers of the future require? And how can we connect those in the most resource efficient way? I think more advances connection tariffs, conditioned, will be a valuable tool for the future. This will enable inclusion of modern technology such as storage and flexibility to the grid network planning process. 

In order to cope with these trends in time, we also need a DSO revenue regulation that allows DSO´s to make anticipatory investments. If we always must wait for a customer to order a connection, electrification will by default be slow and never in time for society’s needs. Lack of grid capacity is always more costly for society than a some excess capacity!